Accepted paper:

"We rode the boundaries of the land": reflections on the changing control over land and the uses of land documents in Dar Fur sultanate (Sudan), 1785-1875


George La Rue (Clarion University )

Paper short abstract:

In DarFur, oral informants could often explicate sultanic land grants, court cases and administrative letters, and show that documents recorded the outcomes of long power struggles over land. The state gradually expanded its power, creating a new land-holding elite in the process.

Paper long abstract:

Recent work on medieval Ethiopia suggests that individual land documents existed in multiple versions, undergoing both a bureaucratic process of creation, polishing and reworking from rough draft to final form but also substantial transformations of the very nature and the extent of the rights granted over land. Others have also seen struggles over land as long processes, rather than as a single event captured in a definitive document. This has added to the growing literature on Sudanic empires and the complex process of state formation. For the study of the hakura system in Dar Fur, a rare combination of eighteenth and nineteenth century land documents in Arabic and the memories of oral informants provided a good look into the past. While the documents include sultanic land grants, court cases and administrative letters, informants could often explicate the documents, identify the people mentioned in them, and show that documents recorded not undisputed facts but the outcomes of multi-generational power struggles over the land. During site visits, informants indicated key features of the land in question. With this broader set of information, the texts could be placed in the contexts of sultanic strategies, ethnic conflicts, personal agency, commercial development and climatic variation as evidence of and tools in much larger struggles over land. Such rich contextual evidence suggests that not only were land documents generated in an administrative process, but the state gradually expanded its power in a series of struggles over land, creating a new land-holding elite in the process.

panel P152
Administrative and legal documentation in pre-colonial Africa and beyond